Hardly a day goes by without President Trump launching an attack on the press. Not just the individuals on the White House lawn but on the very concept of the freedom of the press. His persistent declarations of “fake news” and his insistence on “alternative facts” poison the mind of the public and weaken the pillars of an honest profession.
Over the years, there have, of course, been publications and individuals who have blurred the lines between newsman, rabble-rouser and gossip-monger. And the establishment of the internet as the primary news source for most people today has blown the industry wide open. Many people who are not journalists in the strict sense of the word now wrap themselves in the title as if grasping for a cloak of credibility.
Journalism is at a crossroads. I am an old hack, a journalist with 30 years chalked up on my inky sleeve. I look out wearily on a battlefield of broken oaths. How much more difficult and confusing for the youngsters coming into the trade, wondering what the hell they are supposed to do. Imagine the confusion among the medical profession if the President of the United States were to declare war on the Hypocratic Oath.
So, what should be the guiding principles?
Doubtless, every hack has come up with his or her own ideas about truth, honesty, integrity, balance and so on. I am lucky in that I can consult my family.
I never knew my great grandfather, he drowned with his two eldest sons in Whitsand Bay, Cornwall in the summer of 1878, 85 years before I was born.
However, I can still tap into his his views on the profession that we both share.
Edward Spender was 26 when he set up the Western Morning News with his brother-in-law William Saunders. Published out of Plymouth and, with careful use of the railway timetables to make it the biggest newspaper in the south-west of England, the first issue appeared on January 3, 1860.
The copy I have in front of me which only runs to four pages has blackened slightly along the creases, the result I am afraid of being stowed away for some years in a wooden box in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands; but that is another story for another day.
The front page of the first issue is filled with small advertisements as was the custom. Fine Old Port and Sherry Wines are to be sold at auction at Skardon & Sons at Plymouth Commercial Showrooms that very day; the Newly-Invented Stereoscope (50 to 100 views) is for hire at WH Luke’s in Bedford Street (just up the road from the thump and grind of the presses of the Western Morning News); and Miss ME Grigg of 8 Crescent Place, Mulgrave Street “begs to state that she continues to give LESSONS in DRAWING”.
The rump of the News follows inside. The international news is headed by the French Emperor Napoleon’s reception of the diplomatic corps at the Salle de Trone while the Spaniards “displayed great bravery” under an attack by the Moors in the Morocco War.
The Police Intelligence section is particularly busy. Shoemaker Richard Joyce was charged with assaulting his wife and a police officer, the result it seems of a monster session of binge-drinking. Mrs Joyce doesn’t come out of this too well either: “The most disgusting language appeared to be common between them and they were in the habit of drinking together for days,” cites the report.
Spare a thought for a couple of 10-year-old boys too. John Ridden was charged with stealing four penny puddings from the stall of Mrs Sarah Cundy in the market while Thomas Roberts was charged with pinching a magic lantern from the store of Mr Jonathan Herder in Buckwell Street before selling it to another boy for two pence. Both boys were imprisoned for seven days and whipped.
There is even a murder, 64-year-old man killing his wife and dumping her in her night clothes outside their own front door at Roche, near St Austell.
The first issue also has a Letters column, notably an account from Spectator of “barbarous cruelty” perpetrated by workers at Millbay Pier as they attempted to move a bullock “suspended by its horns from a crane!”
However, at the heart of this first issue of a newspaper which is still going strong almost 160 years later, and the item which rings particularly loud in this Trumpian Age of Alternative Facts, is the Editorial. Perhaps Mission Statement would be a better description.
It was written by my great grandfather who lays out the principles behind this new publication, including what might be seen as the principles of journalism. I won’t quote the whole thing but here is a section that all journalists, whether they are old hacks or young thrusters, would do well to consider and take to heart.
“In matters of Politics and Religion, we shall be strictly independent. We do not hold a brief for any party, in Church or State. The journalist should aim at a higher office than that of the advocate retained to defend a client, or to blacken an opponent. If he have a right idea of his vocation he will strive to be the impartial judge, rather than the ingenious but one-sided counsel. He will carefully seek to avoid the misrepresentations of motive and perversions of fact that too often disfigure the Press in its treatment of public men.
“But let it not be supposed that independence involves neutrality or silence. Although we have drawn up no confession of faith, we shall not be found wanting in the expression of opinions. Bound to no party, we shall have no hesitation in criticising any.
“We have heard it remarked that strict justice is impossible: that we must of necessity join one of the two great factions that rule the State and vex the Church. To us, however, it seems far more easy to write vigorously as well as truthfully, if allowed perfect freedom of speech, than if we were pledged by secret promises, and hampered by stringent contracts.
“Every inducement that can influence will concur in preventing us from giving any party indiscriminate support. We cannot honestly assert that the Conservative is always a selfish traitor , or the Liberal a generous hero. Neither can we endorse the dicta that “Providence is always on the side of the Tories” and that “the Devil was the first Whig and Cain the second.” Extreme opinions of this kind suppose a happy indifference to the facts of history, and the events of daily life, which we have not yet attained. It is not probably that we shall reach it just yet. In the meanwhile we hope to prove that there is both honesty and bravery in the ranks of Free Lances. We shall have equal liberty in discussing local matters as in dealing with matters of general importance. We shall have no interests to serve, nor classes to uphold, and thus we shall best advance all.
“Our columns will be open to the opinions of those who differ from us: and we shall ever be ready to give a fair hearing to our correspondents so long as they observe the good old knightly rule of Christian courtesy.
“Public speakers of whatever creed shall be faithfully reported. We have never yet found it happen that all the orators on one side are eloquent while those on the other side are fools. Wisdom and folly are generally fairly apportioned; and whether it is in the House of Commons or on the Platform correctness of thought and clearness of expression are, for the most part, equally shared by every section.
“We shall carefully exclude from our pages all such advertisements and criminal reports as are morally objectionable
“We have set before ourselves a high standard. Being but human, we shall no doubt often fall short of it. Nevertheless we believe that English men and women are always ready to forgive occasional failings , when they see the hearty desire manifested to serve the cause of truth with vigour and honesty.”
Having set up the Western Morning News, Edward Spender moved to London in 1863 where he and Saunders set up the Central Press agency in Hatton Gardens. He continued to contribute to the Western Morning News as well as numerous other publications and published a book Fjord, Isle and Tor in 1870.
After his tragic death in 1878, links to the Western Morning News continued in the family. Another brother-in-law Russell Rendle served as managing director, a role that Edward’s son Arthur Edmund, my grandfather, would also fill when he came of age.
Sadly it stopped after Arthur. When I applied for a place a rookie back in the 1980s, I was politely told there were no vacancies but that my details would be kept on hold. I am still waiting for the call to follow in the family footsteps.
I do sometimes feel, though, that I was born in the wrong age. The dystopian Trumpian values, the crumbling of the Fourth Estate, the despicable phone-tapping antics of fellow hacks and the deliberate narrow lens of political chicanery all seem wrong. They make me question my own role as a journalist.
But the words of Edward Spender, written over 150 years ago, reiterate the power and nobility of a truly great profession. And, I suspect, a rather fine man.
©Barney Spender 2018